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People Top 5
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- February 10, 1986
- Vol. 25
- No. 6
A Lesson in Uncommon Valor
Teacher Christa McAuliffe's Example Lives on After the Challenger Tragedy
Her mission, no matter how NASA described it, was simple. She set out to reawaken the pioneer spirit in Americans, especially students, by demonstrating that the space program was accessible to all. She didn't possess the icy control of a fighter pilot or the intense intellect of an astrophysicist. She was closer in spirit to the first brave passenger ever to step into a cloth-winged commercial airliner. She was a woman with a job, a husband and two kids, and when she volunteered for the space program, she didn't know much more about shuttles than that they needed a tire change now and then. There was one thing very special about her, though. She viewed life as an excitement of possibilities, not as a series of obstacles, and America came to see in her optimism its own best image.
Before the launch of Challenger last Tuesday morning, she had been described as the first civilian in space, though she really wasn't. Before her had come an Arab prince, a Mexican engineer, a Dutch scientist and even a couple of politicians. She was indeed going to be the first teacher in space, but that was only a small part of what she would symbolize. When she and the other six members of the Challenger crew died, a little more than a minute into their mission, their deaths touched Americans in a way not often felt anymore. The nation grieved for all the dead, for all the families, for the children and, in Christa, for the spirit and daring of the average citizen.
After the tragedy had claimed shuttle commander Francis Scobee, 46, pilot Michael Smith, 40, Judith Resnik, 36, Ronald McNair, 35, Ellison Onizuka, 39, Gregory Jarvis, 41, and McAuliffe, 37, President Reagan called them heroes. They were, but that is not what the New Hampshire high school teacher had set out to become. She wouldn't even call herself an astronaut, just a "space participant," and she said the worst part of the job was not being at home, where she could hug her children before they went to bed. She said that her son Scott, 9, understood what she was doing but her daughter, Caroline, 6, called her on the telephone now and then to ask, "Mommy, are you in space yet?"
She worried about her physical fitness, that she'd fall off the treadmill during tests (she didn't). She worried whether the real astronauts on the Challenger crew would accept her because of her amateur standing (they did). She unabashedly admitted a girlhood fondness for the TV series Superman, related weightlessness to soaring like Peter Pan and anticipated looking down from the shuttle craft at "Spaceship Earth," a Disney concept. She probably lacked what has come to be known, almost reverently, as "the right stuff," but she had plenty of good stuff of her own.
If her visions were often engagingly childlike in their sense of wonder, there was no nonsense about her beliefs. Her love for her family and her students was so pure and uncomplicated it seemed a spiritual link to the pioneers in Conestoga wagons she admired so much. She was an adventurer who believed that risks were acceptable, even necessary, in life, and she was that way right from the start. When she was a small child living in a low-income public housing project about five miles from downtown Boston, she got on her tricycle one day and began peddling along the main thoroughfare leading into the city. She was stopped by her mongrel, Teddy, who ran into the road and circled the tricycle, barking until cars stopped. "We never did figure out where she was going," her father, Ed Corrigan, said.
Like most Americans, she had forgotten, or at least suppressed, the dangers of space flight. She told one interviewer that a space shuttle flight "...isn't the type of thing, I think, that anybody looks at with fear that there's going to be an accident." On a radio talk show, she said she felt safer going up in Challenger than driving around the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Apparently, she was convincing. Her sister Betsy, 27, said after arriving at Cape Canaveral, "I was more worried getting on a plane and flying out from California than I'm going to be of her going up there." Her father, who admitted to a bit of trepidation as the time of the launch approached, said that since Christa felt it was so safe, "we'll go along with her."
So routine had the shuttle program become that the three major TV networks did not carry the lift-off live, and space reporters were at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where photographs sent by the unmanned Voyager 2 were considered more significant news. Even Challenger, the workhorse of the four-vehicle shuttle fleet, generated confidence. After nine trips into space, NASA engineers considered it the finest performer of all the orbiters.
The shuttle blasted off the launching pad smoothly, but what took place in the next minute will forever haunt the NASA space program. First came the explosion, then the sight of hundreds of spectators, many of them relatives of crew members, staring perplexedly into the sky, wondering whether the great flash was merely the routine separation of the first stage. Slowly, agonizingly, faces crumbled and shock settled in. Adding to the horror was the monotonic voice of a NASA technician on the public address system. He continued to read off electronic data after the crew had been blown apart, droning on, then suddenly stopping, pausing, and announcing, "Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction."
The major malfunction, of course, was that the entire crew was dead.
It was this kind of dehumanizing of space flight that McAuliffe so much wanted to change. Had she survived, she would have taught two classes from space, brought back her son's toy frog she carried with her and then made speeches across the nation. Her good intentions would have flared briefly, like a small nova, then faded, because even someone as dedicated as the best high school teacher in New Hampshire cannot hope to accomplish much against a government bureaucracy. In death, though, she accomplished her mission. She is the mother, wife and teacher who taught us something about courage, values and hope. It was what she wanted from life.
'She taught me to respect knowledge and that it takes work to make it yours'
It is almost dusk on this subfreezing, windless day in Concord, N.H. Next to the ice-choked Merrimack River, a lone plume rises from a tall smokestack, an eerie reminder of the horrific exhaust trail that hung above Cape Canaveral some hours earlier. Store lights along Main Street are blinking off, and the slush from the previous day's snowfall has stiffened to crusty furrows alongside the curbs. Mailman Bob Tousignant, 57, has just finished his rounds and mutters with a shake of his head: "I never knew Christa McAuliffe, but I'll tell you, after I heard about the shuttle explosion, something in me cut loose and I cried all through my route." Several blocks away, Tousignant's daughter Ann, 18, sits at home with three friends reminiscing about their high school teacher, not so much with tears but with a certain pride and eagerness to share what McAuliffe taught them about life, work and the courage to persevere.
"I was on my lunch break riding my exercise bike when I saw the explosion on TV," says Ann, like the others a recent Concord High School graduate and a past student in one or more of McAuliffe's classes. "I stared and listened and for a long time I just pumped my heart out...I never saw a teacher hold a class's attention the way she did, even with the problem kids. I was one of those who sat in the back, sort of hiding, but right from the first day she'd get everyone involved with her 'Name Game.' After 20 minutes going up and down the rows, she got us to memorize every student's name. I think that was how she got us to start thinking and caring about each other. In her law class we worked in pairs and I even stopped hiding in the back." Tousignant, now a clerk tending the automatic-teller machines of a bank, adds that, true to McAuliffe's self-image as an "ordinary person reaching for the stars," she compelled students to excel, to succeed in overcoming life's obstacles.
"I took her two Law for Young People classes," says Susan Dill, 18 and now a marketing major at Franklin Pierce College. "But we called them 'Street Law' classes because she taught us what we should know when we got out on our own: how to stand up for our rights, all about landlords, escrow contracts and what happens in the courts to drunk drivers. She'd take us to the city jail and the courthouse, all 30 of us, to listen to the judge and lawyers and policemen. She'd even bring in car salesmen to explain how you can get ripped off. Most of it stuck because what really mattered to her was us as people."
Dill was at home reading when her mother told her about the explosion. "I kept watching it on TV, over and over," she says. "Nothing sank in. All I could think of was Christa and her family and her standing in front of class with those crazy hairdos of hers. Sometimes curly, sometimes wavy or long. Or once coming out of the rain all stringy and soaked, but she was gorgeous—smiling, fired up and ready to teach us."
To Tim Falvey, 18 and also a bank employee, McAuliffe was the hardest-working teacher he ever encountered. A student in her American Foreign Policy and American Culture classes, he says at first he thought she just had a good memory. "Then," he says, "one day I asked her about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which only got a couple of sentences in our textbook chapter on Vietnam. The next day she gave us a whole lecture on how it was a turning point in the war. She had stayed up half the night studying so she could give me an answer. She taught me to respect knowledge and that it takes work to make it yours." Falvey says he was about to eat lunch when his boss told him, "The shuttle blew up." Disbelieving, then shocked as the news was repeated by customers and colleagues, he went home in a daze, unable to eat.
Jennifer LaPierre, 21, recalls her ebullient teacher not as a classroom mentor but as a tutor who spent summers and countless sessions after school coaching her in everything from the prehistoric origins of man to photography skills. Totally deaf in one ear and partially in the other, LaPierre explains she also has reading and writing disabilities. "Christa volunteered to help me," says the liquor store cashier. "I'm a slow learner and I usually have to lip-read, so I'm not the easiest person to teach. But she was never impatient with me. She'd just take a book, any book, and we'd dig in, page after page. We'd go at my pace. She was such a special lady to me, and it's because of her that I graduated and still want to be a photographer. I'm good with my hands and she never let me give up on myself.... She used to say any dream can come true if you have the courage and work at it."
The four students alternately speak, then lapse into silence, their eyes straying back to televised replays of the space shuttle catastrophe. In turn, they describe—perhaps more as a way of grasping for what cannot be retrieved than as a recording of fact—classroom episodes and images of a dynamic guiding light in their lives. "You just can't forget how she brought things down to our level," says Dill with a lilting laugh. "She'd tell us how she and her husband used to struggle to make ends meet when he was a law student and she was a part-time teacher in Washington, D.C. They had inflatable, zebra-striped sofa chairs, orange-crate lamp tables, leaks in the roof and roaches running around in the corners. But as newlyweds they did it, they pulled it out and went on to make something of themselves. I think she used her own struggles as a lesson, and it wasn't lost on us. She made her life a story, and now we're part of that story."
LaPierre, timid in company, often speaks almost in a whisper, but when remembering McAuliffe's radiant smile in the high school hallways, her voice becomes loud and unwavering. The other students, seated on the Tousignant family sofa, listen and nod. "She was a sweet, caring, wonderful woman," LaPierre says. "She hasn't died, not for me, because every time I see her smile it makes me want to smile. When I close my eyes, I see her so clear, so near that I want to tell her I'm proud of her. I want to say, 'Hi, Christa. We're with you all the way.' "
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